A messy state budget deal gained the endorsement of Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb on Friday soon after it won final passage from state legislators.
Republican legislative leaders scrambled for much of Thursday to add about $300 million in school funding after facing complaints that a costly expansion of eligibility for Indiana’s private school voucher program would leave traditional schools with small funding increases.
The revised deal finally got House and Senate votes in Friday’s early hours, clearing both Republican-dominated chambers in near-party line votes that wrapped up about 2:30 a.m.
Despite not seeking the voucher program expansion, nor a speedup of planned income tax rate cuts that GOP lawmakers included in the deal, Holcomb said during a Statehouse news conference that he would “gladly” sign the two-year $44.6 billion budget.
“It is a generational impact budget,” the Republican governor said. “Its policies and plans can be viewed, as we do, as a blueprint for growth, and we’re going to be busy building up and growing all over the state.”
Holcomb pointed to budget provisions such as $500 million toward a new round of regional economic development grants and about $120 million to fill his request to eliminate school material and textbook rental fees charged to families.
Lawmakers didn’t give Holcomb all he sought – prominently deciding to provide about two-thirds of the governor’s requested funding for expanding county health department programs. The funding would be aimed at improving the state’s low rankings in areas such as obesity, smoking and life expectancy.
Holcomb said it was a start in an effort that he made one of his top budget priorities after a state commission found that Indiana’s local public health spending ranks 45th among the states.
Republican Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb on Friday endorsed the state Legislature’s consensus budget plan. (AP Photo/Tom Davies)
State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said the Legislature provided “the major components that we need in order to be able to go forward.”
“There are some strings attached, but they’re all things that are very, very workable, and we’re very excited to get started,” Box said.
Conservative lawmakers foisted several other issues onto Holcomb’s desk during the four-month legislative session that he didn’t seek — and drew crowds of protesters to the Statehouse.
Holcomb has already signed into law a measure that will prohibit transgender youth from accessing medication or surgeries that aid in transition and mandate those currently taking medication to stop by the end of the year. The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana has filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the ban from taking effect July 1.
The governor, meanwhile, hasn’t yet said whether he will sign a bill requiring schools to notify parents if their child requests a name or pronoun change at school or another that could make it easier to ban books from public school libraries if they face complaints of being sexually inappropriate for children.
A leader of the state’s largest teachers union said lawmakers “missed the mark” on helping schools around the state or stemming the loss of teachers leaving the classroom.
“Most of what happened in the session had nothing to do with that,” said Dan Holub, executive director of the Indiana State Teachers Association. “We’ve been obsessed with social issues and things like that and, actually, that’s done more to cause educators to think twice about the profession they’ve chosen.”
Public schools groups and Democrats argued the voucher expansion’s cost shortchanges traditional public schools with funding increases less than the inflation rate.
The voucher expansion in the initial budget deal announced Wednesday by Republican leaders was set to consume more than $500 million of the nearly $1.2 billion increase planned for general K-12 funding over the next two years.
The revised plan added about $300 million to boost the total increase to about $1.5 billion — increasing funding for public school districts to 5.4% in the budget’s first year and 1.3% in the second year, according to projections from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency.
The voucher expansion includes raising the income limit for a family of four from the current $154,000 to $220,000 and removing a requirement for most families that at least one child had previously attended a public school.
Senate Democratic Leader Greg Taylor of Indianapolis said schools will be unable to significantly increase Indiana’s lagging teacher pay as state money is siphoned away to the voucher program.
“We can’t find ourselves at the bottom of the barrel on education, at the bottom of barrel on public health, and come into a legislative session, when we know these things are true, and they decide we’re going to focus on making sure that the wealthy get more assistance,” Taylor said.